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China's migrant worker wage battle
Latest Updated by 2007-02-12 09:24:57
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Every year before Chinese Spring Festival, or the Lunar New Year, millions of migrant workers face the uncertainty of whether they will be paid or not.

"Desperation" best describes the situation that many migrant workers unfortunately find themselves in at this time of year, with their employers "forgetting" to pay them before the holiday.

Like immigrants to many developed countries, China's rural migrant workers often enter the urban environment with limited skills, starting their life in the city as construction or service workers, security guards, hotel and restaurant workers or cleaners. As major breadwinners, the vast majority of migrants stay in the city all year round, only returning home once a year -- during the Spring Festival, a traditional occasion for family reunions.

Thirty-year-old Xiang Jianming from the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, is just one of these millions of migrant workers that ply their trade in China's cities so that their families back home can live in moderate comfort.

Xiang had been painting walls at a construction site in the Daxing District of Beijing for half a year. "I need the money to support my two daughters' education," he said. "I would lose face if I went home empty-handed."

"Many of us are borrowing money for food and lodging," Xiang explained. "We can't afford to wait around nor can we afford a ticket home. The boss just paid us about 100 yuan (12.5 U.S. dollars) a month to cover our sustenance costs and promised to pay us when the project was finished."

Xiang, together with about 200 of his colleagues, had begged their employer for their one million yuan's worth of wages -- about 5,000 yuan each, but failed. As a result, they were bullied and harassed by a gang of hired thugs.

According to police and voluntary lawyers representing the migrant workers, their employer failed to pay them as the commissioned contractor that hired them is illegal and unqualified. Xiang and his colleagues now believe that it was a "trap" from the beginning.

"The boss knew the contractor was unqualified," Xiang said, "but he did it on purpose so that when the project was finished he need not pay us."

Out of sheer desperation, Xiang and his colleagues took extreme steps in order to arouse media and government attention, forming a blockade on a road in Daxing District. The publicity stunt paid off and the intensified pressure from the local government forced their employer to pay out.

Xiang and his colleagues got their money on Feb. 2, a week after the media furore started. "The district officials handed us money on the construction site," said Xiang. "We finally got what we had been waiting all this time for." Most headed straight to the railway station for the first train home.

Xiang's case epitomizes the experience of many migrant workers in China's rapidly expanding cities. The total number of migrant workers in Chinese cities is estimated to be around 200 million --about one seventh of the country's total population. The actual number could possibly be far higher, and it is on the increase.

However, not all migrant workers are as lucky as Xiang. In December 2006, Xie Hongsheng, a 28-year-old migrant worker in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, died after he was attacked at a construction site by a gang of hired thugs -- he was demanding about 40,000 yuan that was owed to a dozen rural workers including himself and his father.

In 2005, Wang Binyu, a migrant construction worker in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, murdered four people in a desperate bid to recover about 5,000 yuan in wages owed to him for a year's work. After he was set upon by a gang of hired thugs, he flipped, stabbing his foreman Wu Hua to death, along with three other members of Wu's family.

Wang was executed in October 2005, and shortly before his death, a Xinhua News Agency reporter conducted a prison interview with him. "I want to die," Wang said. "When I am dead, nobody can exploit me anymore -- Right?"

"Too Soft"

The root of all the problems facing migrant workers is deeply ingrained in the loopholes of the social and legal systems for the migrant workers amid China's quickening urbanization in the past two decades.

Absence of contracts is the most obvious flaw, along with illegal or unauthorized contractors, insufficient labour supervision, and poor law enforcement.

"Only about 10 percent of the disputes we dealt with in the past year have signed contracts," said Shi Fumao, a lawyer with the Beijing Legal Aid Office for Migrant Workers -- one of the few organizations that offer free legal advice.

"In the traditional rural communities, people trust each other and use oral commitment, which, however, could lead to wage disputes in employment," Shi said. Indeed, some migrant workers could not even prove they had worked at a site after their bosses refused to pay.

Unqualified contractors also contribute to wage disputes. According to a recent survey by the Beijing Legal Aid office for Migrant Workers, about 80 percent of the back-wage cases were related with illegal contractors who disappeared with the money intended for the migrant workers. This survey was carried out using over 1,000 cases that the legal aid office dealt with dating from September 2005 to September 2006.

Punishment is often referred to as "too soft" for the contractors who dodge paying the migrant workers. Chang Kai, a doctor in labour law at the Beijing-based People's University of China, remarked, "It costs them almost nothing to break the law --they can go on making money elsewhere without even being fined. One would choose to dodge paying since he might succeed and the most serious punishment is to pay what he should."

Indeed, if a migrant worker decides to take his employer to court in order to recover his wages, he is often met by a mountain of legal fees. Surveys show the average cost incurred for migrant workers to bring a case against their employer and reclaim their wages is often actually triple that of what they are owed. "For example, recovering the 5,000 yuan for Xiang incurred costs of about 15,000 yuan. The extra was shouldered by voluntary lawyers, media, labour departments and Xiang himself," Shi said. 
Even though he won the case, Xiang's employer did not have to pay anything toward his legal fees or even a fine -- he simply had to pay Xiang what he was due. This loophole in the legal system does little more than to further encourage the problem, as Shi said, "It was the boss who had committed the crime but he essentially paid nothing for it."

Legislation is considered an effective way to eradicate wage arrears, "The wrong-doings should be hit with harsh measures -- only heavy punishment would effectively discourage employers from not paying their migrant workers," Chang said.

A draft labour contract law, also involving crackdown on non-payment of wages, is expected to be approved by legislators in the near future. China's current labour contract system was set in a labour law enacted 12 years ago. If approved, the new labour law would be the country's first specifically designed to govern contracts.

Government Crackdown

China started an "anti-wage arrears crackdown" in 2003, after Premier Wen Jiabao demanded the payment of overdue wages on behalf of a migrant worker during a visit to Chongqing.

Another widely cited milestone in this crackdown is a landmark ruling by the State Council in March 2006, making it easier for migrant workers to get legal assistance. Gao Zhen, director of the Ministry of Justice's Legal Aid Centre, said the ruling "lowered the threshold to extend free legal help for the migrant workers --now the migrant workers needn't provide files to prove that their families are extremely poor before they ask for free legal aid."

The ruling improves the efficiency in extending free legal assistance to all migrant workers involved in wage disputes, regardless of how much money they have in the bank. Indeed, "Many migrant workers' families are not that poor -- below the minimum living standard for example -- but this doesn't mean that they don't need their wages," Gao said.

In point of fact, citing figures collected in free national legal aid centers, Gao said the number of migrant workers applying for free legal help jumped by over 65 percent between 2005 and 2006.

Various other countermeasures have also been put into practice. In the construction industry for example, many cities have issued regulations requiring real estate developers to deposit money before they start breaking ground, so that workers would be paid even if the project runs into problems.

Figures have recently been released revealing the sheer scale of the problem. The Ministry of Construction announced that the total value of defaulted construction fees and non-payment of wages topped 186 billion yuan at the end of 2003, with 183 billion yuan finally being paid out by Jan. 19, 2007 -- including 33 billion yuan for migrant workers.

Grassroots workers are encouraged by the improvements that the government is making. Indeed, Ma Yang, an employee with the Beijing-based Xiao Xiao Niao (Little Little Bird) Cultural Communication Center -- a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to the protection of migrant workers' rights -- asserted, "Things are getting better in recent years, especially in 2006. The number of people seeking help in our office fell remarkably."

Ma then went on to comment how he believes that many of the outstanding cases could be tackled over the next two or three years. "Most cases we deal with are those wages defaulted many years ago," he said. "Few come to complain with new cases."

Xiang shared Ma's sentiments, finding that many more departments were starting to become more willing to provide help for him and his fellow migrants. "I will come back to work in Beijing next year," he said. "We now know how to protect ourselves better -- a contract and avoiding unqualified contractors, plus there are more places available for us to go to for help."

Despite this obvious progress, there are still some isolated cases being reported of migrant workers desperately trying to recoup their wages. However, this isn't the only problem. Another fundamental disadvantage faced by migrants is the traditional "hukou" system of urban residence permits, which bars them access to the social and political rights and social security benefits enjoyed by permanent urban residents.

Indeed Wang Chunguang, a veteran expert on migrant workers with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said, "Much needs to be done so as to ensure the citizenship of migrant workers, involving education, social security and voting rights that are equal to those of permanent urban residents."

Ensuring that migrants actually get paid for the work they do is just the first step down a long road in search of migrant workers' rights.

Editor: Yan

By: Source: China View website
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